While the original 1974 presentation of the Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove musical The Frogs was presented in a swimming pool at Yale University, the rare stagings since have found imaginative ways to perform the show in proscenium theaters. The expanded two-act Broadway version has seven added songs and more material added by Nathan Lane who starred in the Lincoln Center Theater production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Now MasterVoices has opened its 2023-24 season with this delightful romp in a new one-act concert version narrated by the inimitable Lane to cover the excised slapstick and elaborate scenic sequences. Conducted and directed by Ted Sperling, celebrating his tenth anniversary as MasterVoices’ artistic director, he obtained the maximum out of his company. The all-star cast had a field day in roles that fit them like gloves and were joined by a 12-person dance chorus playing both blue clad Frogs and red-and–black dressed Dionysians. Freely adapted from Aristophanes’ award- winning comedy from 405 B.C., the Greek version recounted how Dionysos the God of Drama – and Wine – wants to go to Hades, the land of the dead, to bring back the recently deceased playwright Euripides in order to restore tragedy to its former heights in a troubled political time.
In Hades, Dionysos oversees a contest between the younger Euripides and the older Aeschylus to see which one is better. Ironically, Dionysos finally decides to bring Aeschylus back as giving the more useful advice on how to save a city. Shevelove updated this to a debate between George Bernard Shaw who Dionysos initially favors and William Shakespeare. Here too the older Shakespeare wins as the more poetic of the two and as great poetry is what is wanted now. Along the way Dionysos visits his half-brother Herakles, meets Charon the ferryman, has an unfortunate encounter with the Frogs in the River Styx and is reunited with his late wife Ariadne.
Dionysos’ description of The Frogs is one of animals that we all should abhor: narrow minded creatures that attempt to pull you into their self-satisfied world. “They hate change, they hate new ideas, they just like what’s good for them, and they’d like to turn us all into frogs.” Dionysos explains to Pluto, the God of the Underworld, the reason for his mission: “The world is in such a mess. Everyone lives in fear now. Our leaders have filled us with fear. That’s the way they like us. Frightened and vulnerable. So, they can do as they please. And I think if Shaw were to write again, he could show us the truth about ourselves and how we live.” The message of the Shevelove/Lane The Frogs is that it is time to act and participate before it is too late to save the world.
Sondheim’s smart and nimble score includes quotes from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady and his own lyrics from West Side Story. The score includes patter songs, love songs, choruses and a rousing fanfare. The opening “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” has witty rhymed couplets about bad audience behavior. The breezy “I Love to Travel” and its counterpoint, “I Hate to Travel” are also amusing in rhymed couplets.
Each of the main characters has a specialty number all of his own. Herakles’ “Dress Big” is a lesson in dressing for success, while the Pluto and Dionysos duet, “Hades,” has a great many clever rhymes on the concept of hot. Charon’s “All Aboard” is a cheerful song about the dark realm of Pluto’s kingdom. There are two lovely ballads, Dionysos’ “Ariadne,” and Sondheim’s setting of Shakespeare’s “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun,” the song lyric from Cymbeline. Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations gave The Frogs the traditional Sondheim sound when in a comic vein.
The cast was uniformly suited to their comic parts. As the cheerful Dionysos who often needs saving and his gloomy servant and traveling companion Xanthias, Douglas Sills and Kevin Chamberlin were delightful opposites. Marc Kudisch brought virility and authority to the role of a smarter than usual Herakles. Chuck Cooper made a fine buoyant and chipper Charon, not what one usually associates with this character whose job is to ferry the dead to Hades. Peter Bartlett gave another of his over-the-top fey performances as Pluto who revels in his kingdom of free love and free speech. MasterVoices’ chorus member Candice Corbin made a lovely but brief impression as Ariadne, Dionysos’ beloved wife. Dylan Baker and Jordan Donica made an interesting contrast as the pompous Shaw and the somber Shakespeare.
Lainie Sakakura’s choreography for both the Frogs and the Dionysian denizens of Hades brought a touch of light-hearted eroticism to the show. The costumes by Tracy Christensen were a droll mix of Greek and contemporary. Shelby Loera’s lighting design always directed attention where it was needed, while Scott Lehrer’s sound design was usually fine except when the too fast lyrics made the words difficult to catch. And, of course, the 120-member chorus of MasterVoices positioned on three balconies behind the stage brought their magnificent voices to the Sondheim score.
MasterVoices acquitted itself well in this deliciously comic concert staging of The Frogs. Why this Stephen Sondheim score is not better known or revived more often remains a mystery after seeing the fine production that fit the Fredrick P. Rose Hall of the Rose Theater. Hopefully, this concert will lead to more fully staged productions now that MasterVoices demonstrated how many star turns are available in this comic masterpiece by Shevelove, Lane and Sondheim.
The Frogs (November 3 & 4, 2023)
Frederick P. Rose Hall, Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.jazz.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission